Jan 1972, p. 10.
Delaware's Forgotten Minority
by Neil Fitzgerald
To my regret and his apparent surprise, Mr. Durham drew his
driver's license from his wallet the other day arid discovered
that he was an "Other."
I'll be damned," exclaimed Mr. Durham, who looked a wee bit
too much taken off guard by the discovery, "I'm an Other."
I looked incredulously at Mr. Durham and at the capital ''I"
which graced the front of his Delaware operator's license,
and my skepticism stemmed from hard fact.
For one thing, I happened to know that Mr. Durham was a Moor
with a capital "M" and decidedly not an Other, which is why
I drove down to Cheswold to talk to him in the first place.
For another, I knew that the Moors of Cheswold paid extra
special attention to the code letter under race on the driving
license. In the early 1950s, a spokesman for the State Department
of Public Safety told me, these people asked for a distinctive
designation of their race on the card. They veritably clamored
to be identified as Moors, and--had the precedent been set
at the time--they probably would have called for "Moor Power."
As a result, the reverse side of Everyman's Delaware license
sports a series of "Color and Race Codes," among them "BK;"
"BL" for Blonde; "BU" for Blue; "GN" for Green; "GR" for Gray;
''H'' for Hazel; "M" for Moor; "N" for Negro; "O" for Oriental;
''W" for White, and ''T'' for Other. An "R" for Red--apparently
added in the '50s along with "M" for Moor--is also among the
codes, although it isn't very clear whether it was meant to
denote color, race or political affiliation. At any rate,
here was Mr. Durham, one of the most prominent Moors in all
Cheswold, telling me in effect that he hadn't noticed that
the state, in effect, had rescinded his Moorishness.
All of this boded ill for the kind of cultural, historical
and socio-political investigation I had planned to conduct
in the town. With a pair of photographers in tow, I had come
to Cheswold to journalistically assay what folklorists used
to call the customs, manners and mores of the people. I prefer
to call such objects of study "distinctive lifestyles," but
no matter, because whatever you call them, you can't find
any distinctive customs, lifestyles, mores or manners of Delaware's
Some of my competitors would challenge this allegation, but
I doubt their credibility. Wilmington's The Morning News,
for example ran a November 18 editorial arguing that Cheswold
area Moors offered a good case in point on the problems of
busing school children to achieve racial balance. "The Moors
and Nanticokes are dwindling now, moving or being assimilated
into the population,'' the editorial declared. "Among the
Moors, at least, the traditions are maintained. No matter
what the federal government might rule, some Moors continue
to hold to their beliefs, and Delaware, also traditionally,
has attempted to respect those beliefs in every way it can."
Unfortunately, the News-Journal papers have never bothered
to cite specific examples of those "traditions" and "long-held
beliefs." Of course the newspapers have printed enough column
inches charting the supposed historical origins of Moors here
to fill a Nader report, most of it repeatedly represented
as rock-bottom, hard scholarship and fact. But newsmen should
never be confused with scholars, simply because both presumably
can read and write, and most of this Moorish history is blatant
The newspaper did cite what they considered to be a tradition:
"The Moors of Delaware have maintained a tradition of claiming
kinship neither with the blacks nor whites of Delaware nor
with the Moors of Mauritania." Somehow I don't think this
it what anthropologists, ordinary people or "Fiddler on the
Roof" mean by "tradition." it's like saying the tradition
of Santa Claus consists only of his not being the Easter Bunny,
a Jack o'Lantern, or a Christmas tree.
remainder, far-fetched theory and wishful thinking. And I
challenge anyone, be he illiterate, naive reporter or bleary-eyed
antiquarian, to solidly document that the people called Moors
in the First State are in any way related to North African-type
The most popular explanation of why there are "Moors" in Cheswold,
Oak Orchard, Millsboro and isolated spots in South Jersey,
nonetheless, is that there was a Spanish galleon wrecked off
Lewes sometime during the colonial period and that the only
survivors were several Moorish slaves. These washed ashore,
proceeded to wring out their soaked garments, intermarried
with the local Indians, and, for some unexplained reason,
moved inland to Cheswold. Later some of them became angry
at the majority and packed their bags, probably full of gold
doubloons and pieces of eight for bridge and turnpike tolls,
and moved variously to Sussex County and New Jersey. The only
thing that gives the slightest credence to this version, which
I hope I haven't exaggerated overly much, is that there were
some Moors in Spain during some time in the colonial period,
principally remembered for building mosques and inventing
coffee. Perhaps they prepared cops of hot java in the galleon
galley for the fatigued pirate who purportedly took the ship
as a prize only to lose it in a squall.
Somewhat more plausible is a story linking the Moors with
an expedition to Tangier launched by Charles II of England
in the 1680s. When the Restoration king disbanded his troops
in and about Morocco, it left several "noblemen" in his military
service with no visible means of support; they decided to
try their hands on shaping the New World. (Naturally they
were noblemen; isn't every good American, in his wildest genealogical
dreams, descended from an English squire?) Anyway, these good
stout fellows apparently tried their hands at something else,
first, because they're supposed to have picked up some Moorish
women for the long, hard voyage, after which they arrived
at Chesapeake Bay and disembarked on an island near Pocamoke
Sound. Fortunately for us, they named the island "Tangier
Island," so that we'd all remember they came from North Africa.
From this point, the story is similar to the tale of the pirate
galleon. Everybody moves to Cheswold, weds Indians, gets mad
and migrates. Only this time the luggage is full of crowns
and pounds and guineas instead of bits. (It never fails to
amaze me that there is no legend of a buried Moorish treasure
in Delaware or Virginia.)
Backing up this historical Fiction is the fact that Moors
around Cheswold have long-established names, most of which
sound very British. Carney (sometimes spelled Corney), Durham,
Ridgway, Ridgeway, Coker and Morgan stand out. And, also,
Charles II did indeed stick his finger into North Africa in
the 1680s. But aside from that, there isn't any proof, evidence
or slightest indication that this version might be true.
A relatively well-known Delaware historian named C. A. Weslager
had a book-length study of the Moors and Nanticokes published
by the University of Pennsylvania press in 1943, calling it
Delaware's Forgotten Folk. Therein he recited various
versions of moorish origins and presented numerous photographs
of local Moors. He couldn't find any traditions to speak of,
and he admitted the documentation of historical material was
pretty slim. A fellow named Donald Downs, who lives not that
far from Cheswold, has spent a good deal of his time writing
antiquarian and historical articles on the Moors. He's even
visited Tangier and Great Britain in search of evidence, but
he's still looking for the slightest shred of documentation
of the Charles 11 story, which he seems to accept. Mr. Downs,
in a 1960 article, said he got that version from one Maxwell
Blake in 1938. But when Mr. Downs went to Tangier to talk
to historian Blake in ]959, he found the man had just died
and the union jacks were all at half-mast for him on the day
Downs arrived. Again, fortunately, Blake's account had been
an oral one with no documents to speak of to back it up. There
are, additionally, a quantity of college term papers enshrined
in area libraries on Moor history, the bulk of them drawn
from Messrs. Weslager's and Downs' endeavors.
And then there's Cheswold and its Moors themselves.
The most concrete historical evidence in that community consists
of tombstoness in church yards, which isn't much. It's not
that gravestones themselves are no good for historical evidence;
to the contrary, one of the latest things in historical scholarship
is the use of such ''artifacts of material culture." The trouble
is that most of the inscriptions give little more than name
and years of birth and death. One, near Little Union church,
about four miles out of Cheswold toward Dover, tells you one
man with a typical Moor name drowned while oystering on Murderkill
Creek, but that's the only one of any historical note. And,
too, most of the stones date only after the War Between the
States, which doesn't help very much in checking out colonial
Mauritanian backgrounds. You do learn from some of this vintage,
however, that there hasn't always been a distinction between
Moor people and Black people,
Most of the Civil War headstones mention membership in the
U.S.C.I., which stood for United States Colored Infantry,
and two of the stones spell out that racial non-differentiation.
But, otherwise, all you find is a chat here and there by generations
of sundry Sammons, Ridgways, Durhams, Cokers and the like.
Most of the other material objects in the town - like houses
- aren't all that old either and don't say very much about
the traditional Moorish lifestyle,
I can pass for Irish"
The next best physical evidence is the look of the people
themselves. Some look very American Indian, while others look
very African black; yet others look very much like you'd expect
someone from Algeria to look, although you've probably never
been to Algeria. And not a few look very WASP. This lack of
homogeneous physical characteristics is not unknown to the
Moors, and the most frequent comment I beard around Cheswold
was: "But I can pass for Irish." That it might not be coincidental
that almost everybody singled out Irish didn't bother me half
as much as the fact I never asked these people if they could
"pass" for anybody other than themselves; the comment was
unsolicited. However, the point is that many here could pass
for anything - Irish, Greek, Oriental even.
Cheswold folk aren't exactly unfriendly to those who would
discuss their origins; they'll invite you into their homes.
But once there, they don't seem to have any answers to your
questions. At first it seems like they're giving you a hard
time, but then you wonder if they know anything at all about
their history. If you're lucky, one might ramble out a version
of the pirate story or tell you to go up and talk to Downs.
But usually, you get nothing. "Do you have any customs here?"
Silence, and then a flat statement that there aren't any.
"Do you have any family souvenirs?" No. "A family Bible even?
" Nope." " Is there anything you can tell us about being a
Moor?" Well, - not really.
Don't get me wrong - I didn't come to Cheswold expecting to
find copper-skinned femme fatales who called you "offendi"
when they welcomed you and then opened a slave auction. Not
only didn't I even get offered a cup of Moorish coffee or
any other refreshment - sitting in one living room waiting
uncomfortably for an answer or comment that never came I felt
like I was sharing a bench with the lady at Pennsylvania Station
- but I couldn't find anything distinctive about these people.
I mean I did expect some sort of customs to crop up in a state
which had taken the trouble to specify Moor on its drivers'
licenses. Norma, one of our photographers, put it best; "Aw,
heck, scratch a Moor and you just find another Delawarean.''
Now in Mr. Downs' 1960 article, he said the Moors he knew
had some distinctive Moroccan customs. But what the heck were
they, Mr. Downs? I saw with my own eyes and heard with my
own ears that there aren't any. If there are any, the Moors
surely haven't noticed them.
As I said, questions about things like family relics and family
stories don't seem to phase the Moors. They don't respond
simply because, as they'll admit, they can't. The reason for
this lack of response, however, changes drastically if you
ask anything even bordering on the question, "Are you at a11
discriminated against here?" Then these not unfriendly people
clam up on you. So you go elsewhere for your information.
In Cheswold you go to the Reverend G. E. Barton Jr., who is
in a unique position to tell you about, if nothing else, the
sociology of Delaware Moorishness. Reverend Barton is a white
united Methodist minister, and most of the Moors are of his
flock. Or, rather, members of his congregations, because he
also ministers to what he lovingly called "the White church"
in Cheswold. This is why Barton is in a prime position for
study; he hears both sides on an almost daily basis.
Is there a racial problem in Cheswold?
Is there a racial problem in Cheswold? You'd better believe
there is, and you'd also better know it's one of those totally
singular situations you just don't find in communities that
consist of only blacks and white. The Moors, you see, don't
consider themselves black, despite the U.S. Census which for
untold years has refused to differentiate Nanticokes, Moors
and Negroes. When you come right down to it, a number of these
long-established Moor families don't happen to like the Negroes
and Puerto Ricans who have been trickling into Cheswold's
population in recent times. This alone couldn't be all that
great a problem, since Moors aren't known for being fanatical
bigots. The problem arises, though, when you discern that,
as far as Cheswold's white populace is concerned, Moors aren't
much different from Black people. And this means social conflict.
The same kind of racial situation arises in, say, Louisiana.
Now, Southerners have always known where to rank Negroes on
the social ladder, but what to do with a Cajun? If you loss
a proud Cajun into the same racial grab bag as a Black, he's
not going to lose what traditions he had. The same is coming
true in Kent County
It's coming true - which is to say that potentially fascinating
people like Mr. Durham are becoming "Others" - because of
minor incidents like the one involving the Cheswold Volunteer
Fire Company, Inc. Now if you've never lived in a small town
like rural Cheswold, the first thing you have to understand
is that membership in the volunteer fire company is the pinnacle
of social status. It is almost as if you lived in Wilmington
and made the Wilmington Club. Not so many months ago, a prosperous
Moor of the town, hoping that times had indeed changed, applied
for membership in the company and was blackballed. It was
a genuine slap in the face for the Moor community which, according
to Reverend Barton, had "tried to use legitimate routes in
the society and found they couldn't get anywhere." Barton
himself resigned from the fire company, something akin to
a State Representative resigning in protest from the General
Assembly over the conduct of the legislature. The Moors even
considered getting together and boycotting the volunteers'
Saturday night bingo games, which probably would have damaged
the company's budget beyond repair since the majority of Cheswold
consists of Moors.
The incident, too, says something about the impact of Moors
on Cheswold's white, Protestant minority. The vote against
the Moorish applicant came as a consequence of the persistent
opposition of a prominent white member of the company. This
man apparently attended the University of Delaware and, when
he was around 18, dated a girl in Newark who learned he was
from Cheswold and called him a "Moor." He took this as something
next to calling him a "nigger" and never got over it. His
prejudice, noted Barton, carried a lot of weight.
It you tell it like it is you've got a fight
you call a man a Moor chances are you've got a fight," concludes
Reverend Barton. "What happens is that a bright kid goes off
to college, makes it and thinks he's got it made. Then he
comes back here, and he's still a Moor.
people don't want to be identified with the Blacks, but some
of them look like Blacks and it's unrealistic," Barton added.
"They are different; it is lust a fact of life, but it's causing
a sad thing to happen - many are leaving.
he said, "they're becoming quick to deny the little heritage
A good many Moors have either moved out entirely -- to New
York and Philadelphia, where nobody has ever heard of an American
Moor, or even to Dover, where they're infrequently noticed
as different - or have looked for social acceptance elsewhere.
It might, for example, come as a jolt to most residents of
the state capital that the leadership of the Dover Little
League is composed almost entirely of Moors, or that the head
of the department which drafts most of the legislation for
the General Assembly, and hence for the state at large, is
But, back to Cheswold itself, people in the town are extremely
conscious of who is Black, who is White and who is a Moor,
especially in the area of religion. Churches here have traditionally
been segregated. At one time, Moors could attend a white church
but had to sit in the balcony. Later they got their own churches,
the Methodist ones at least presided over by a Black minister
and belonging to a Black conference. Reverend Barton, who
came here seven years ago, is the first full-time white minister
to the Moors. And they've tended to lord it over neighboring
congregations who are still stuck with Black preachers.
An outsider coming to a Sunday service at "the Moor church"
is in for a big surprise. Reverend Barton will welcome anyone
to worship, but the congregation is going to give anybody
they don't know the kind of look that would melt iron. Tony
and Norma, our photographers and regular churchgoers, came
to the door one Sunday morning intending to pray with this
fascinating group but were halted at the steps outside. "Can
I help you," was the greeting of the Moor attendant, which
rather made the Delaware Today pair feel like they
were traveling salesmen instead of would be parishioners or
This clannishness, on the other hand, seems to extend only
to church and geography. "The only notable distinction is
geographic now, and even that is giving way," said Barton.
Probably seventy percent of the 300 or so people who live
in Cheswold proper are Moors and most of them live in a pin-pointed
locale on the Cheswold-Kenton Road which runs into the Do
Pont Parkway. Heading towards Dover, if you take a right onto
that road, the first thing you pass is the Moor church on
your left. Soon you hit Cheswold center, with the Volunteer
Fire Co., Inc., on your right. Shortly thereafter, you cross
a pair of railroad tracks; from there, for almost two miles
until a strip of black-top intersects the road from an angle,
everybody on both sides of the street is probably a Moor.
There are also Moors in the surrounding countryside and in
other localities. But Cheswold-type Moors are quick to deny
being related to them. "There are Durhams down in Millsboro,"
says Mr. Durham of Cheswold, "but they're no kin to me; there
are also Durhams here who aren't related to me and who aren't
Mr. Durham remembers a time in his boyhood when Moors from
Cheswold and Millsboro and Bridgeton - at least at that time
they felt somewhat related if only by the name - chartered
an excursion boat for an outing. But that time is long gone.
On an occasional "talent night" for youth at the Moor church,
some folk will come down from other localities, but that's
about it. The Moors used to have their own schoolhouse, but
it burned down more than a decade ago. Now they mostly attend
William Henry High in Dover - a black high school by the record.
The new busing idea may change even that. Once there were
distinct social classes among Moorish land-owners, and in
the days when Blacks were kept from jury duty in Sussex County
a Moor was picked.
simply don't have any other traditions, to speak of, explains
Reverend Barton ''They're the same as any farmers hereabouts."
Loose with the tongue - but tight with the dollar
Unless, he muses, you consider their communications network
and their capitalism. "If you want to advertise a church supper
here," he says, "and you print 10,000 announcements and put
them everywhere and do nothing else, chances are only a handful
will show up. But if you make a few strategic telephone calls,
the whole Moor community will come out for it." This, says
Barton, may be a consequence of small-town life, but he doesn't
think so. He thinks the Moors' rumor mill is one of the most
efficient anywhere. Then there's the penuriousness the minister
described, which apparently would warm the heart of any Scotchman.
"When they have, a picnic," he relates warmly, "they sell
you the hamburgers."
Not to enter the realm of stereotyping - since even an amateur
cultural anthropologist will be branded a racist for trying
to offer cultural characteristics these days - but the Moors
seem to be well off. Their farms seem to prosper. One owns
a thriving used car agency outside town on route 13; another
has an air park for general aviation which is a stand-out
in the otherwise less than industrial community. They seem,
on the whole, in fact, to be more prosperous than their white
neighbors, although they do point to Cale Boggs as the local
boy who made it biggest and he's definitely not a Moor.
Once discriminated against in terms of jobs, the Moors have
managed to make their way into some trades with great success,
"One or two of the more aggressive men get work with a construction
firm," the minister told us. "I don't know whether the company
knew they were Moors or cared. Before long these men became
supervisors and foremen, and naturally they hired their own.
Now there are a great many Moors with that company, and I'm
not sure but that there is some white resentment here over
But, the minister continued, his goal is "not to knock peoples'
heads together. which doesn't work, but to solve specific
problems. "I'd been here six months, and the all-white cub
pack was down to five boys and no den mother." he noted. "I
suggested something which had completely escaped there people
- that Moor kids might join; we ended up with a dozen more
boys at least and two den mothers, plus a viable scout troop
and no resentment in the matter from either side."
There is little potential for racial violence in a town like
Cheswold anyway. One Moorish girl did marry a black man, with
no hint of a problem, although such occurrences aren't frequent.
There was no trouble when a just-married Moor couple rented
a white lodge's hall for a wedding reception. But everyone
will admit there's an undertone of trouble in Cheswold--or
at least an undercurrent of very anti-democratic thinking.
Lighter color is indeed a status symbol in the little hamlet
north of Dover. Less visible Moors move away. Tradition, what
there was of it, is denied. Most whites refer to Moors as
Black, and a few days ago the average Moor was dreaming of
a White Christmas.
What it boils down to, then, is that people like The Morning
News editors are quite right in noting the "assimilation"
of the Moors, and quite wrong when they say "the traditions
are maintained." They are even more wrong when they limit
their discussions of Cheswold and its Moors to anti-historical
nonsense about pirates and Tangier, while neglecting the most
complicated racial situation in the state in their news and
The fact is--and you can learn this from even the most brief
sojourn in Cheswold--that the Moors don't look distinctive,
act distinctive or even think distinctively, but that like
anyone else they want to be individuals and special. On the
other hand, what pride and custom they had--the little cultural
individuality they possessed--has been quashed by an unsympathetic,
colorless race which decided to dump them into the same category
with every other minority which happened to have another skin
Two decades ago, the Moors had erected just enough customs
to give them enough courage to ask the State of Delaware to
make them special. It was only the memory of excursion trips,
maybe, but it put that "M' on the driver's license. And, now,
our society has made them - or perhaps made them want to become
- bland, dull "Others."
It is the tragedy of the melting pot, a tragedy for us all
At the same time, here In Delaware, with its dearth of interesting
people, we reprint those feature stories on how we have real,
live Moors here. We use these people to make us special. But
when we meet them face to fate, we tell them they can't join
our clubs, or, at best, we lump them into Afro-Americans,
A paradox of latent malice, this. Surely there is no evidence
these people are colorful Algerians, which is what we would
have them and ourselves believe. But just as surely are they
individuals who don't have to be just nonentities or another
brand of minority to be put in the bag with all the others.
We segregate them, viciously, and then laud the action: "For
generations the U.S. Census has refused to recognize the Nanticokes
or the Moors, but Delaware has, as evidenced by the setting
up of separate schools." This is the reaction of the November
18 editorial in The Morning News. Wow, let's hear it
for Delaware; we've recognized that Moors are different by
cutting them off from the rest of the school system. We've
made them quiet racists, bigots against other minorities.
We have, in short, given them a lovely choice; they can be
either Minority or Other, but never ever anything else.